First Impressions

Part of the Dinosaurs: Ancient Fossils, New Discoveries exhibition.

Two hundred years ago, farm boy Pliny Moody was plowing a Massachusetts field. Uncovering some mysterious fossil tracks, the 14-year-old showed them to family and friends. Others soon began collecting the strange relics. Although no one realized it then, Pliny had found traces of the extinct dinosaurs that once roamed what is now New England.

Two hundred million years ago New England was a perfect environment for track preservation--steamy and swampy. But because no one knew about dinosaurs when Pliny unearthed the three-toed imprints, people thought they belonged to ancient birds. Today, when we know that modern birds are living dinosaurs, those early guesses don't seem so far wrong.

In the Nick of Time

In the 1830s, some Massachusetts builders were ready to use a slab of sandstone when one of them noticed tracks in the rock surface. He brought the slab to local doctor and naturalist James Deane, who began collecting and classifying trackway specimens. Deane's curiosity about the trackmaker launched the scientific study of fossil footprints. But decades would pass before the prints were attributed to extinct dinosaurs.